After having dealt with several members of the Blue Jays front office in a series of email responses over the past few years, and having walked through the maze of workspaces that comprises the nerve centre of the organization at the Rogers Centre, one thing is obvious: this is a highly literate group. Stacks of books relating to organizational effectiveness and human relations can be found on almost every desk. This is a collection of voracious readers who look to implement what they’ve read into methods for building a winner.
Contrary to what many fans might think, the process of deciding when a player is ready for a promotion to the next level is complex, and involves many facets. It’s not just a process of looking up a player’s stats on milb.com and determining that he’s ready.
One of the books that guides the team in the player development process was written by Florida State Psychology Professor Anders Ericsson that looks at how one reaches the level of expert in any field of endeavour, “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.” Author Malcolm Gladwell brought Ericsson’s “10 000 hour rule,” into prominence in his book, “Outliers.” Although Gladwell simplified Ericsson’s rule, somewhat, the principle of the 10 000 hour rule is that is the volume of practice that is needed to become highly proficient in a discipline.
In a sport sense, the 10 000 hour rule doesn’t mean, for example, that a baseball player take 10 000 hours of batting practice when he’s already a good hitter. Ericsson says that repeating the same activity over and over isn’t enough to allow someone to reach the top of their field. Ericsson claims that “deliberate practice,” working on skills outside of a player’s comfort zone, is what develops expertise. And it’s not necessarily skills that the player feels he needs to work on that leads to high performance. Another factor Ericsson cites is the influence of a highly skilled coach or teacher that dictates the skill(s) that need to be worked on. Blue Jays Vice President of Baseball Operations Ben Cherington describes the how the team has developed this process:
One of the learnings from that book is about how practice must be adjusted continuously to keep challenging the skill. In that sense, we believe competition level ought to be adjusted continuously to challenge the skill, though if we go too fast the skill development can get sidetracked so it’s really about hitting that sweet spot.
Reading between the lines, it’s apparent that the Blue Jays have a list of skills for each player to master before they’re ready for the next step. And it’s not just the skill itself, but the component parts that comprise it. For an infielder, that may mean working on pre-pitch setup, reads, first-step reactions, footwork, transfer, and arm accuracy and strength. The team may not necessarily have a stopwatch timing the amount of practice a player has put in, but they do recognize that those skills take time to develop. The amount of skills a Catcher needs to learn would be lengthy, which might help to explain their collective lengthy developmental process.
So, a considerable amount of time and effort must be expended on the player’s part to get to the next level. And while this is going on, he’s being watched by many in the organization: scouts, minor league instructors, analysts, and high performance and front office staff. Cherington adds:
We’d get input from coaches, high performance, analytics, and front office. More specifically, we’d be looking for how they are progressing on priority goals, how strong are their routines/work ethic/teammate behaviors, what their underlying performance measures say about whether they are appropriately challenged by the level they are at (that is we’d like players to be challenged but not overwhelmed by the level they are at), and finally we’d look at roster/secondary implications of the move, re who loses out on playing time, who gains it, etc..
Consensus is an important factor in this process: a player doesn’t move up unless all of the decision makers feel he’s ready. Organization solidarity is important in all phases of a player’s development. As Jason Parks, in an essay titled, “How Are Players Scouted, Acquired, and Developed?” observed:
You can’t teach a baseball player to play baseball (your brand of baseball) with a chorus of voices singing different songs at different times for different reasons. The developmental hierarchy has to communicate in order to develop the best possible plan for the player in question. It’s a team effort and when it loses that consensus, the player suffers.
The player almost all fans are clamoring to be promoted, of course, is New Hampshire 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who is currently laying waste to Eastern League pitching. But as we’ve known all along, Guerrero’s bat is not the issue, and he likely will only marginally improve his offensive skills at AAA, because the jump between the two levels tends not to be significant. Prior to this season, Guerrero had played less that 200 games at Third, a position the team switched him to after signing him. The high performance staff has instituted a program to improve his first-step quickness, and the instructional staff has developed a regimen of drills to improve the other aspects of his defensive game. And all of those take time – it takes months to see the results from full-time training. Throw in playing 5-6 games per week, and the time frame expands. When will Vlad move to AAA? When he’s checked the boxes on the developmental list. He must be close to doing so, but obviously the Blue Jays feel he still has some benchmarks to hit.
Teams do want to challenge their players, and the fear of leaving a player too long at one spot and letting him stagnate is probably always present. And the landscape is littered with players pushed too far too soon. Travis Snider was promoted to the bigs with just over 300 games of minor league experience. Dalton Pompey and Daniel Norris made their debuts in 2015 after whirlwind minor league seasons; all have struggled to establish themselves as Major League regulars since that time – Snider is playing Indy ball this year.
At this point, the process of promoting a player is more art than science, although the balance is moving toward the latter. There still is a highly intuitive aspect to it in the form of the opinions of the people involved. It’s a process that is constantly developing Cherington admits, when he says, “We’re not perfect at it and continue to learn.”